Sunday, December 11, 2005

Memories of Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, Dead At 89, And Of Covering His Campaign

Two days after the 1968 New Hampshire Presidential primary, I was assigned by the L.A. Times to cover the candidacy of Minnesota Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, who had surprised President Lyndon J9hnson by nearly defeating him in the Granite State.

It was the beginning of six months spent following McCarthy to 35 states during an anti-Vietnam war campaign that spelled the political end of Johnson but ultimately ended in the defeat of McCarthy as well, and the election of Richard Nixon to the Presidency. Nixon falsely claimed to have a plan to end the war.

The year was also marked by the assassinations of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who emtered the Democratic primaries after New Hampshire.

Covering McCarthy was one of the highlights of my career, and I was sufficiently impressed by his candidacy to have personally voted for him in the California primary, which ended tragically that night with the Kennedy assassination. I can remember, fresh as if it were yesterday, Paul Conrad's great cartoon on the assassination, showing a stack of 1.6 million California ballots cast for Kennedy, and one bullet, and the ballots all flying away. The foul assassin, the Palestinian terrorist Sirhan Sirhan, remains in prison until this day.

I had been opposed to the Vietnam engagement by the U.S. since its inception, and I admired McCarthy for being the first to have decided to challenge Johnson. Having been educated in my junior year in college in France, during that country's Algerian war, I always viewed Vietnam as a continuation of the colonial wars that had afflicted France, and I never thought the U.S. had a good strategic reson for being in Vietnam. I had a $100 bet with my father, a U.S. Navy Admiral, that we would not win the war.

Since, I had been discharged from the U.S. Army reserve in 1965, after serving in the six months-seven-and-a-half year plan of Army service, I had no persopnal stake in opposing the war, as so many other young people did, but I had sympathized with the anti-war movement, and written about it at a time when the L.A. Times supported the war and was paying very little attention to it. That was probably why I was assigned to cover McCarthy, because the Times editors wanted someone who was fairly independent and would give McCarthy a fair shake.

I threw myself into the campaign, at one point writing stories for 56 consecutive days, but I slowly became somewhat disillusioned with McCarthy, especially after he failed to oppose the Soviet intervention to crush the Czechoslovak reform movement against Communist rule in August, 1968. Later that year, foolishly accepting the notion there was a "new Nixon," which Times editor Bill Thomas warned me there wasn't, I voted for Nixon for President in the November, 1968 election.

The McCarthy campaign was my initiation into two decades of political reporting for the Times. I had majored in government and po0ltical science at Dartmouth, at the Institut D'Etudes Politique in Paris and at U.C. Berkeley, where I got a Master's degree in Political Science, so I had plenty of training for what turned out to be many political assignments.

The death yesterday of McCarthy brings back many memories, but I long ago lost most touch with the former senator and had not spoken with him in several years.

McCarthy, I found, to be finally a rather mordant, uncharismatic man, who may have been too proud to admit, in the end, that it really mattered to him whether he was elected President or not.

He was anything but a great speaker, and one of the truest passages in the Times obituary by Art Pine this morning was the quote by poet Robert Lowell, in which Lowell said of McCarthy, "The last thing he wanted to do was to be charismatic. He was a mixture of proud contempt and modest distaste...Usually the cheers were greater when he came in than when he finished speaking."

Nonetheless, I admired McCarthy for having had the political smarts to recognize that Johnson was vulnerable and the courage to get into the race at a time when no one else in the Senate was ready to challenge him.

I've never believed the Vietnam war was analogous in any way to the present war we are fighting in Iraq and against Islamic terrorists throughout the world. It has always seemed to me we have a valid strategic interest in the present war, while there was no good reason for us to be fighting in Vietnam.

During the time I was covering the McCarthy campaign, my immediate supervisor at the L.A. Times was Edwin Guthman, then the paper's national editor. Guthman had worked years as press secretary to Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was at the Justice Department as Attorney General, and he was a tremendous admirer of Kennedy. Yet in all the time I covered McCarthy, I never detected from Guthman any desire but that I should be fair to McCarthy. In a great demonstration that one could be devoted to one political candidate while supervising the coverage of others, Guthman simply had too much integrity to ever shade the coverage. Working for Guthman was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Nearly 40 years later, I remain one of his many admirers.

The L.A. Times was in its hay day at the time I covered McCarthy. It was a privilege to be associated with the paper at a time when Otis Chandler, the publisher and Nick Williams, the editor, were determined that the Times should be one of the finest, if not the finest paper, in the country.

I also had many other wonderful experiences in the McCarthy campaign, seeing the U.S. and becoming acquainted with many fine journalists, such as Ned Kenworthy, who covered the McCarthy campaign for the New York Times, and television correspondents Sam Donaldson and David Shoemaker. Certain McCarthy staffers, such as Parker Donham and Mary Davis, became fast friends, and I even appreciated the Life magazine columnist Shana Alexander, who may have become McCarthy's mistress during the campaign and who was the first to tell me that McCarthy would not endorse Hubert Humphrey in the fall campaign, which he managed to avoid doing until very close to the end and then never did wholeheartedly. Shana Alexander died earlier this year.

I remember how terrified I was, when I first joined the McCarthy campaign coverage in Green Bay, Wis., that I would lose out on that night's story, the visit of Sen. Edward Kennedy to McCarthy to tell him that Sen. Robert Kennedy would join the campaign the next day. I couldn't match Kenworthy, a longtime campaign insider, that night, but, as I recall, I did all right with my story.

Later, as the campaign went on, Kenworthy and I became good friends and when we heard about the shooting of Robert Kennedy, while we were with the Mccarthy campaign at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the two of us contacted the Beverly Hills Police Department and asked that they send guards to protect McCarthy, in case there was a conspiracy afoot.

Travel was cheap in 1968. The most expensive hotel I ever stayed in during the course of the long campaign was the St. Regis Hotel in New York, which cost me $34, while the cheapest was a hotel in Bismarck, N.D. that cost $4. I stayed repeatedly at the elegant Manager Hay Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C. for $16 a night.

The Times Washington Bureau was rather jealous of my McCarthy assignment, and like many Washington bureaus rather disdainful of any politician challenging the White House. Washington staffers, I found, were usually inclined to believe the White House commanded more power and influence in the country than it really did.

Eugene McCarthy long ago lost any decisive influence over American politics, but beginning with the New Hampshire primary, for several months in 1968, he was part of American history. It was a great privilege and responsibility for me to cover his candidacy as well as American politics in general.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your up-close view of some fascinating history.

I wonder what that young reporter would think about THIS war and THIS president...

12/12/2005 8:06 AM  

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